Getting Back in Touch With Long-Lost Sibelius

For those of us who had the good fortune to grow up with classical music around the house-a not so unusual state of affairs before the disastrous schism between popular and “art” music occurred-attending a concert or opera is always, in some sense, a return to childhood. Hearing Murray Perahia in Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words in Avery Fisher Hall the other day brought a lump to the throat as much for the finely controlled buoyancy of the playing as for its reminder of my own halting attempts at these pieces back when I was barely past the “Jolly Peasant” stage. Hearing Rossini in any form conjures up afternoons spent glued to the radio, waiting for the Lone Ranger and Tonto to come galloping to the rescue.

But not until I found myself at the recent Lincoln Center festival “Northern Lights: The Music of Jean Sibelius,” devoted to the music of Jean Sibelius, did I realize how much I had been missing one of the boon companions of my youth. Along with Berlioz, the great Finnish composer had had an intoxicating effect on my adolescent wanderlust; if the former’s music-especially “Harold in Italy”-aroused longings for Byronic escapades in southern Europe, the swirling crescendos and vaporous vistas of the latter’s symphonies stirred visions of solitary battle with Nature’s elements on a windswept northern crag.

And yet, at some point during the Bach revival of the 50’s and 60’s, when the transparency and concision of Baroque music made the grand utterances and massive harmonies of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and their followers seem vulgar, I turned my back on Sibelius. Music has always echoed, uncannily, the pace and spirit of the times: Bach perfectly expresses his era’s love of ritual and resolution; Mozart, the quickening egalitarianism of the Enlightenment; Stravinsky, the ironic cosmopolitanism of the modern age.

Coming to maturity at the turn of the century, when symphonic spectacle was still a thing of wonder, Sibelius, who was born in 1865, had the double appeal of not only providing a link to the revolutionary classicism of Beethoven and the singular romanticism of Berlioz, but also of adding a new, exotic, nationalist voice to the increasingly international chorus of concert music. Even though he stopped composing in 1926, spending his last three decades in a mysterious silence (he died in 1957), Sibelius’ music had a long, potent life on symphonic stages, radio and recordings. There aren’t many Americans born before 1960 who can’t whistle “Finlandia” at least as well as they can “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

And yet, despite a continuous stream of recordings-virtually all the major postwar conductors, from Leonard Bernstein to Simon Rattle, have stormed through the symphonies, and the Violin Concerto has long enjoyed war horse status-Sibelius has, for the past 30 years, been pretty much regarded as a windy bore by the so-called musical elite. There are many reasons for this, but I suspect that the real gripe against him by the modernists who singled him out for special vilification was less his adherence to old-fashioned sincerity and granitic tonalities than the fact that he was so damned good at grabbing an audience and holding them, riveted, until he was done with them.

This was demonstrated, to a degree I haven’t witnessed in years, during the three programs by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis, that formed the heart of Lincoln Center’s Sibelius tribute. Mr. Davis-whose traversal with the L.S.O. of the composer’s seven symphonies (four CDs, RCA Red Seal) is, to my mind, the finest all-around performance of these works on disk-is an advocate-conductor of passion and persuasiveness. (Among his other rigorously selected enthusiasms are Berlioz and Michael Tippett.) Cannily, he launched the festival with the composer’s most forbidding work-the austere, glacial Fourth Symphony-as if to announce, right off the bat, that we’d better think again about dismissing Sibelius as “minor.”

Written after the composer had suffered from another of his ongoing financial crises, a severe throat ailment that forced him to abandon his customary large intake of alcohol and nicotine, and a trip to a desolate corner of Finland, the Fourth positively aches with what W.B. Yeats called “a terrible beauty.” Employing a beat that seemed to be tracking rather than leading the orchestra through deep snow, Mr. Davis stretched the journey-and the audience’s attention-to the breaking point. The work’s dissonant, grinding clash of tonalities, its roiling timpani-charged climaxes, even its intermittent passages of skittering vivacity in the strings and winds, seemed not so much manmade by those splendid musicians on Avery Fisher’s stage as unleashed by some larger, unseen force.

Under Mr. Davis’ lapidary baton, the movements didn’t so much end as disappear-the way a cloud will suddenly dissolve into thin air, leaving bleak, cold silence. If, after the last chord, the audience felt exhausted, it was the exhaustion that comes with revelation: The mists of oblivion had cleared-Sibelius lived!

From there it was, relatively speaking, downhill: five songs of yearning and grief cloaked in late-Romantic gentility, sung by Katarina Dalayman, a stunning young Swedish soprano; magisterial, close-to-the-bone readings by Mr. Davis and the orchestra of the seventh, third, fifth and second symphonies; two of the composer’s many frankly programmatic tone poems ( The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return ); the trusty-and now, too familiar-Violin Concerto; marvelously played encores of such recently scorned crowd-pleasers as “Valse Triste” and “Finlandia”; chamber music by the Lark Quartet; Sibelius lieder by the distinguished Finnish baritone Jorma Hynnimen; and a closing evening devoted to the music of Sibelius legatees (the most striking was the contemporary Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg). All this, in six programs-plus an open rehearsal with the L.S.O., a film about Sibelius’ life and a lively day of chat by Sibelius experts about the master’s hard-won individuality-made for a brilliant, unforgettable event that should provide a benchmark for musical programming in our too-fragmented concert halls.

By the festival’s end, my naïve childhood visions of trekking through the fir and icy mountains of the north had been supplanted by something far more substantial: I had been brought face-to-face with the great man who, with rigorous intellect and immense imagination, is ever-present in those timeless landscapes. I had not just re-encountered an old companion, I’d gained a new friend.

Getting Back in Touch With Long-Lost Sibelius